Thursday, December 30, 2004

Column on Sontag's Anti-Americanism

Death of an Anti-American

Tibor R. Machan

Susan Sontag died a few days ago, at age 71, succumbing to cancer, which
she has been battling for a long time. She was a very prominent New York
intellectual, a novelist and essayist and a leading member of the American
Left. Despite her frequent brillianceÂ?for example, when she remarked, to
the consternation of many of her pals on the Left that Â?Communism is
successful fascismÂ?Â?Sontag was also pretty confused when it came to an
understanding of human affairs.

In particular, shortly after the devastating terrorist attack on the
World Trade Center, Sontag penned these lines for The New Yorker magazine:

Â?Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a Â?cowardlyÂ? attack on
Â?civilizationÂ? or Â?libertyÂ? or Â?humanityÂ? or the Â?free worldÂ? but an
attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a
consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens
are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word
Â?cowardlyÂ? is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill
from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those
willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of
courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the
perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.

There is great deal thatÂ?s off in these remarks, not the least involving
the history of the bombing of Iraq. Sontag contends, by implication, that
this was some kind of arbitrary American indulgence in aggression against
an innocent country, whereas a consideration of the context would
demonstrate that this is far from how the matter ought to be understood.
But that is only one, and not the most important, problem with SontagÂ?s

While it is generally bad form to criticize the recently deceased, in
this case I think it is worth noting that even to someone like me, who
considers AmericaÂ?s Middle East foreign policy flawed, the kind of
tribalism SontagÂ?s remark illustrates is a very serious problem. Sontag is
among those, after all, who would complain bitterly about such policies as
ethnic profiling in the wake of terrorism, and rightly so. But why is such
profiling wrong?

Because it lumps people together on the basis of what are, after all is
said and done, superficial attributes. Being an Arab or a Middle Eastern
or American should not be held against someone. It is not color or ethnic
background or even nationality that should qualify someone for moral or
legal scrutinyÂ?it must be their actual conduct. And thatÂ?s true also about
how people need to respond to injustices done to them.

Even assuming the United States government has acted wrongly toward people
in Iraq or Saudi Arabia or some other place around the globe, so that
something may be done in response, there is absolutely no justification in
sacrificing innocent Americans, including many children, while doing so.
Â?An attack on the worldÂ?s self-proclaimed superpowerÂ? may under no
circumstances involve lashing out at just any American, especially not
against civilians and children.

Those working at the New York World Trade Center were not some
Â?self-proclaimed superpowerÂ? but a great number of specific individuals
whose complicity in any wrong-doing of the American government needed to
be established before any harm might have been justly inflicted on them.
The terrorists were indeed cowardly for going after essentially
defenseless civilians and children simply because nearly all of them were
Americans. Furthermore, given that in their belief system they would be
rewarded with many blessings in the wake of their terrorists deeds, any
talk of great courage is arguably off base.

But SontagÂ?s ill-chosen remarks illustrate very well to what extent many
on the American Left embrace a collectivist view of human social life.
They view America as some kind of entity, of which the citizens are bits
and pieces, so if one is aggrieved by some of those bits, any others can
be made to suffer in response. For those who think this way, America is
like a person, so if the person hits you with arms, your hitting back at
the head or back is just fineÂ?they are all of one piece. It doesnÂ?t matter
that American citizens do not all agree with the American governmentÂ?s
policies in the Middle East. It doesnÂ?t matter that many of the victims of
the terrorists where kids who couldnÂ?t by any stretch of the imagination
be held responsible for what the government does and has done.

No, for collectivists a society is one great bodyÂ?as Marx said, Â?an
organic whole.Â? America is a large organism and those abroad are another
organism. It is then the former body that mistreats the latter, so the
latter may strike back at any part of the former.

Susan Sontag may have been a decent novelists and essayist, a good
wordsmith. But her thinking, as illustrated by her response to 9/11, shows
that she really was a quintessential anti-American, given her complete
rejection of one of the central tenets of American civilization, namely,
individualism. Only individuals who have been shown to have committed a
wrong against others may be punished for that wrong, not their neighbors,
relatives or children. Her failure to see this makes the late Susan Sontag
a perfect example of the LeftÂ?s fundamental anti-Americanism, even if one
were to admit that American foreign policy leaves a lot to be desired.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Column on Bill Cosby vs. Kenny

Kenny vs. Bill Cosby

Tibor R. Machan

You may recall that Bill Cosby produced some aftershocks last May when he
admonished poor blacks to advance themselves instead of wasting their time
and money on trivial pursuits. This admonition was followed by a lot of
discussion and the repercussions still havenÂ?t died down.

In a recent event where CosbyÂ?s remarks were discussed with a group who
at first sight seemed to be among those he was addressing, some of them
came back at Cosby with pointed rebuttals. Reportedly one young man,
Kenny, 17, Â?a onetime stick-up man,Â? advanced the following Â?argumentÂ?:
"Cosby is ... talking about me holding up my end of the bargain. Listen
.... I robbed 'cause I was hungry. If he's going to put food on my table,
if he's going to give me time to pursue education vigorously, then fine.
But if he's not, then I'm going to hold up my end of the bargain and make
sure I get something to eat."

For a 17 year old this response may seem quite cogent only, actually, it
smacks too much of an excuse and I hope Cosby and his sympathizers
consider that before they cave in. I am not black but when I was about 17
I was out on the street myself, homeless, a high school flunkout. I
actually had a small place in a black neighborhood in Cleveland, what they
used to call a ghetto, and it would have been very simple for me to yield
to the temptation to enter a career of crime. One of my friends, also a
Hungarian refugee, did exactly thatÂ?I remember bailing him out of jail
with a tiny sum of cash I amassed from my job as a busboy. (I couldnÂ?t
keep this job because I was under age but I went on to become a short
order cook, with the glamorous task of preparing house salads in some
diner in Cleveland.)

Now I cannot be sure about this, since to be one would need to have
pretty intimate knowledgeÂ?rarely available to sociologists and social
commentators, not excluding Bill CosbyÂ?but I suspect that Kenny had a few
options besides becoming a stick-up man. I recall that even when I was
younger, living in Munich, I had jobs such as welding, brick laying,
cleaning on pigeon shit from a church steeple and baby sitting. At no time
did it seem to me necessary to turn to robbery, burglary, or sticking up
people. It was part of my general framework of thought, back then, that
with some perseverance and a little luck one can find something with which
to earn a buck or so.

The point, I think, of CosbyÂ?s remarks wasnÂ?t that every single solitary
young person will necessarily be able to make it on his or her own when
faced with poverty and deprivation. One usually needs a little help from
friends and neighbors or even total strangers when faced with such
emergencies. But the first requisite to get out of such a situation
without worsening matters is to have as oneÂ?s frame of reference the basic
principle that turning on other people is simply not an option. That, I
think, is a must. Once it sinks in, there will open up a world of more or
less promising opportunities one can attempt to exploit.

Kenny, I think, is probably reaching for some kind of rationalization
here, although, as I noted, this is not possible to established from just
a brief news report. But why is the report given in the first place, given
how it is impossible to judge from it whether there is any justification
for what Kenny is telling us all?

The reason is that KennyÂ?s story is exactly the sort that many experts in
social science tell and against which Bill Cosby and others with a richer
imagination about how people, even those who are quite unfortunate in
life, can advance themselves. Yes, there are those in dire straits who
need a decisive leg up, but then what they probably need is to learn to
ask for this in the right places. And there are thousands of such places
in America, so KennyÂ?s story just doesnÂ?t cut it even in the worst
circumstances. (Notice how he so smoothly wants Cosby to put food on his
table!) Instead, I suspect, Kenny and his ilk are brought up encouraged to
think that stick-ups are a valid option for people when they are facing
difficulties in making ends meet.

That, I think, is the central message Bill Cosby was trying to
communicate. Stop it with such ideas already!